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CORE's Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Awards Dinner

by Henry Levy

"Just give me some gun control!" demanded Reverend Leon Sullivan, Humanitarian of the Year Award recipient at CORE's Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Dinner. The fact that this was uttered in front of Wayne La Pierre and host Roy Innis (both NRA board members) and Charlton Heston (another Lifetime Achievement Award winner), once again highlights the diversity and willingness to hear opposing positions that are the hallmarks of both Roy Innis and the Congress of Racial Equality.

Reverend Sullivan established the Sullivan Principles, a code of corporate social responsibility that helped end Apartheid in South Africa. He gave a spirited speech, not only taking on the gun lobby and scolding Mayor Giuliani for lack of new housing for needy blacks in New York City, but also telling African Americans that 'showtime is over.' It's time we turned showtime into helping time. As a friend of King, he said the one thing Martin didn't like was putting on a show with nothing behind it. When we celebrate Martin Luther King Day something must be behind the show.

With 2 million black men and women in prison today, Sullivan decried that more money was spent on jails to hold our young men than on schools to educate them. He was upset that black boys walking in any suburb in America today, at night, will be stopped and asked what they are doing walking through the neighborhood and as blacks in America must have justice to survive. "Hand guns and automatic weapons kill thousands every day and if France, England, and Cuba can get guns off the streets, so can we," he added. The need for training programs and jobs to stop the young from falling through the net are necessary at a time when 20% of the blacks are unemployed. He wants training programs to be as numerous and accessible as supermarkets, including being set up in prisons. Plus the rate of HIV infection is ten times greater among blacks than whites. He said if we can send an army to stop Iraq's King Hussein we can send an army to stop drugs today. "We need relief, help with AIDS in Africa, and I call on African Americans to look where you came from and realize you are no greater than those where you came from. If the Irish help Ireland, the Jews help Israel, then African Americans must help Africa," he concluded.

Directly from the dinner Reverend Sullivan was boarding a plane to Africa to help prepare, with the leaders there, for the next African-American summit. It was his respect for Roy Innis' work that made him follow through on his pledge several years earlier to attend CORE's premier event of the year.

When Charlton Heston spoke he indicated how humbling it was to be in the company of men devoting their lives for equality. He recalled that his "own involvement started in the early 1960's when I was called by a friend to help picket against restaurants that were discriminating against blacks. Civil rights were not popular in Hollywood then and I was told by the studios not to alienate moviegoers. I was a rabble rouser - I believed with Thomas Jefferson that all men are created equal."

Heston praised Dr. King saying "the music and magic in his words moved other men who in turn moved mountains and history changed." He continued, "A great many people think of me as Moses parting the Red Sea but if the 20th Century ever had a real Moses who led his people to the promised land that man, of course, would be Dr. King. Because he had the vision to dream, millions had the courage to demand their rightful due. As Mr. Lincoln said, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Heston reminisced that, "In the summer of '63 I met Dr. King while I was President of the Screen Actors Guild. He questioned why there were no blacks in Hollywood's film crews and asked what I could do about that. I told him the technical unions not only wouldn't accept blacks but also no one who wasn't related to a member. That afternoon he met with the board of that union and turned them completely around. They agreed to accept black members, and non-family members and women which wasn't even on Dr. King's agenda. He really did radiate that kind of presence, power... you just knew that he was right. This I truly feel in my heart... those days working in my own small way with Dr. King in the cause of civil rights were among the proudest days of my life."

Heston remembered walking behind him "in that glorious day of triumph 37 years ago which was one of the great days of my life. He and I and 200,000 people marched on Washington DC. We've come a long way on race relations since that day socially, economically, morally, and in many ways the water cannons and police dogs of Selma and Montgomery are silent now thank God."

On a final note, Heston said the message for today should be that "all people have an inalienable right to defend their lives and their liberty from whoever would harm them and with whatever means necessary."

Additional honorees included the legendary B.B. King and Gen. Carl King III, a former Tuskugee Airman. The capacity crowd at one of the largest King celebrations in the country by their presence seemed to echo Mayor Giuliani's words that the "idea Dr. King lead us towards is we are all God's children and we should spend more time on things that bring us together than on those that separate us."

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